Almost everyone hates hidden hotel fees. However, while one lawmaker is fighting back against them, she’s catching heat from local officials unhappy with her position. Always beating the drum for bigger government, the “local control” (see: local tyranny) mob has pounced on State Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) for refusing to carry legislation that would allow a specific city to raise taxes on out of town visitors.
Although the Texas Constitution prohibits the legislature from passing bills that affect a single county, city, or other jurisdiction, lawmakers often use loopholes to do that anyway. Lawmakers often utilize ridiculously specific captions that, while technically applicable to any county in Texas, in practice cater exclusively to a single interest.
For instance, consider Sen. Seliger’s bill, SB 846. This bill allows “the governing body of a municipality with a population of less than 12,000 and in which an annual Wild, Wild West Fest is held may by ordinance provide that the [hotel] tax applies to a person who is a permanent resident.” Although a “statewide” bill in theory, in practice SB 846 would only apply to one city: Andrews, Texas.
The city maintains a Wild, Wild West Fest and clocked in at 11,008 in the 2010 Census, just under Seliger’s cap. Ironically, recent estimates place the population at 12,718, making the town of Andrews ineligible for the same legislation that was exclusively tailored for it. If the bill passes, cities with populations smaller than 12,000 could presumably apply local hotel taxes to permanent residents as long as they hold an annual “Wild, Wild West Fest.”
These bills are often passed on the local and consent calendar, a legislative express lane where they are subject to little scrutiny. Lawmakers are pressured and manipulated by local politicians to carry legislation that enables municipalities to increase hotel/motel taxes in their district.
White, a freshman legislator, faced pressure to adopt such a tax.
At a recent meeting, business and city leaders in Belton asked her to sponsor legislation to increase hotel taxes across the county. Why? To provide a revenue stream of nearly one million dollars in order to subsidize the Bell County Expo Center.
Anticipating that such a meeting would be a one way assault on her record of limited government, White invited local taxpayers to join the meeting. The citizens supported her stance against carrying the water for the tax hikers, criticizing instead the fact that local leaders were asking for more money to upgrade a facility that currently operates at a deficit. Despite being such an obvious fiscal failure, County Judge Jon Burrows had been advocating for Bell County to double down on its bad investment.
“The Expo Center operates at an $800,000 per year deficit, and it’ll probably run at a deficit from now on, but it’s an investment,” Burrows said.
That’s an “investment” only government would make. After all, it’s easy for politicians to waste other people’s money. No private business would continue to fund any project that would continually operate at a loss. No citizen would continue to invest in a stock that decreased in value every year.
State Sen. Troy Fraser quickly jumped in to defend his local, big-government colleagues.
“Under Chapter 334 of the Local Government Code, the Commissioners Court already has the authority to vote to implement a 2 percent county hotel/motel tax that would then need to be approved by the voters,” Fraser wrote in a statement.
If county officials already have the authority hike taxes, why are they pressing White to have the Legislature address the issue? Perhaps they fear that raising taxes locally would require voter approval, and therefore, local accountability. So much for “local control.” Such a reality couldn’t be more ironic considering the statement Belton Mayor Marion Grayson directed at Rep. White.
“This is the wrong move for you,” Grayson warned. “You are supposed to represent your constituents who are telling you that they want this,” Grayson said. “Hotel visitors aren’t your constituents.”
State Rep. White was right to oppose the tax increase, and it should serve as further indication that reform is desperately needed to correct an abused practice that has, unfortunately, become commonplace in the Texas Legislature. It’s also indicative of the need for Texans to elect more taxpayer advocates at the local level.